Monday, April 25, 2011

Another Very Special Pulitzer Prize

Medicine's loss was journalism's gain.

Paige St. John would have been a great doctor or veterinarian.  But somewhere during her studies at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville she veered into what was then the nation's smallest accredited J-school and the die was cast.

Today, she holds the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism, for a two-year-long investigation into fraud, failure and misfeasance in the Florida insurance industry, particularly in the field of home insurance against hurricanes.

We were on the road when the news broke last week.  "Paige Wins Pulitzer!!!" said the text message from our son, John -- Paige's husband.

For the second consecutive year, Lois and I -- particularly Lois -- walked step by step in the shadow of a Pulitzer Prize winner on the trail of corporate corruption and greed. Lois was Dan Gilbert's "journalism stepmom" in pursuit of the oil and gas royalty scandal in Virginia that won the 2010 prize for public service.

We first met Paige when John's then wife-to-be visited us in Pennsylvania.  She could transform a walk in the woods with the dogs into a series of enlightening mini-lectures on the flora and fauna to be observed around us.  She exuded compassion for all things great and small.  She might have succeeded in any number of careers, including music and science and medicine, but her commitment to journalism was total.

As a skeptic about the future of the craft -- megacorporate ownership already was diluting the quality of journalism across the land -- I feared for her future and John's.  Our son, too, was still then an award-winning journalist who had been a finalist in the Pulitzer judging.

Having shepherded more than one Pulitzer Prize-winning effort ourselves, Lois and I knew the cost -- not just time and money but emotional toll, internal stress, political pressures, libel fears.  As American media came under increasing pressure for profit rather than quality journalism, fewer and fewer information purveyors were willing to pay the price.

The Sarasota, FL, Herald-Tribune, where Paige landed in 2008, is one of the few surviving practitioners of that kind of old-fashioned journalism.  None of her editors blinked when the project stretched on and on beyond the six months originally envisioned.  None expressed purse-string concerns when the pursuit of the story took Paige to Monaco and Bermuda, where the really high rollers of re-insurance fraud frolicked.  No editor panicked when the writing, editing, illustrating, re-checking and publishing of the reportage stretched over a full year.  Nobody at the paper backed down when regulators, politicians and powerful corporate lawyers tried to block publication and smear Paige. 

State Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican and member of the Banking and Insurance Committee, wrote:

Paige, you are one of the few that continues to uncover details and one of the few that the newspaper industry continues to support and finance.
Thank you from all consumers in the State of Florida.

Kurt Luedtke, probably the only man ever to win both a Pulitzer Prize in journalism and an Oscar from the film industry, and a subscriber to the Herald-Tribune, had made essentially the same point in an e-mail to the editor shortly before the Pulitzer was announced. He wrote that "enterprise and investigative reporting all over the place is diminished because of money problems, and the lack of it is, I think, a real problem for all things civic and maybe democracy itself.

"That said, here is the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, with resources which must be as threatened as anybody's, consistently turning out work that's damn good, and greatly relevant to its market, and well-written and well-presented to boot. And not easy stuff, either: I think about the insurance series as an example of difficult, time-consuming work which badly needed doing. . . If there were a big, fancy prize for quality work over, say, a five year period, you'd win it."

Paige told an interviewer that her husband was her first and best mentor in the art of investigative reporting, which he once taught at the University of Michigan.  John responded that now the tables are turned. "She knows much more than I do.  I could be her student."

So, I might add, could the entire Washington press corps.  But that's another story.  Maybe there's a Pulitzer in it for someone.

1 comment:

  1. The winning articles may be found at this link:

    And Paige is not done yet. --Lois